There Are No Happy Endings In Nature

Planet Earth is covered with life, but none has had a more profound impact than Humans. We aren't the oldest, most numerous, or even the most widespread species, but we are unique. We've managed to take control our own fate, and that of the entire planet...

There Are No Happy Endings In Nature

Planet Earth is covered with life, but none has had a more profound impact than Humans. We aren't the oldest, most numerous, or even the most widespread species, but we are unique. We've managed to take control our own fate, and that of the entire planet. We were created by the same natural forces that shaped all life, but we are no longer living in "nature". Unlike all other known forms of life, we've gained enough consciousnesses to think about nature and our relationship to it.

In order to talk about nature, we need an objective definition. I like this one:

Nature is the laws of physics, chemistry and emergent phenomena. It's life on autopilot. Nature is the spontaneous creation of self replicating proteins. Organisms are merely avatars for these proteins to reproduce. Nature doesn't care about meaning or morals. Like gravity or protons, it simply exists.

All life, including humans, has been honed by billions of years of evolution to do one thing. Reproduce. For humans that meant selecting for increasing intelligence, and eventually consciousness. The pleasures and pains used to drive animal behavior became forces for us to control. Our increasingly complex social lives spawned morals and the search for meaning, attaching value to inherently meaningless events. We began to think about our world and created culture to understand our place in it. As we became aware of ourselves, we placed ever greater value on the search for meaning and purpose beyond reproduction, something totally foreign to all other life forms. We wanted a legacy, to build something bigger than ourselves.

Leaving The Cradle

For as long as we've been human, we've worked to escape the natural world. Our technologies, knowledge, and cooperation allow us to alter and experience our environment in vastly different ways than even our closest relatives. At first, the battle to escape nature was mostly unconscious, but as our knowledge and awareness grew, so did our efforts to escape our "natural" limitations.

But change is never unresisted.

There's always been a tension between technological progress, and those claiming that older, more "natural" ways are better. Broadly speaking, we can represent this by showing two opposing extremes. The primitive world view, which is represented by the most radical forms of romantic environmentalism. The main claim of the primitive world view is that leaving nature is a bad idea. People who hold this view tend to idolize hunter gather and indigenous cultures as ideal ways of living. They usually personify nature as a compassionate giver, or "mother" that must be protected from the ravages of man.

On the other side we have the modernist world view, which seeks to control nature to serve the interests of mankind. To the modernist, life is merely genetic code obeying the laws of physics, nothing sacred about it. The modernist views nature as ambivalent at best, and actively hostile to human flourishing at worst. With our newfound consciousness, we can see clearly that nature doesn't care about the voice in our heads that we call "me".

Understanding what relationship we should have with the natural world (if any) has always been a hotly debated issue. What seems like a philosophical question can have incredibly high stakes. The future of our species depends on how we choose to view nature and our relationship with it.

So which world view is right?

These examples are deliberately extreme, but we can use them to find objective truth. Lets break it down.

What Really Happens in Nature?

When we think of nature, we think of beautiful landscapes and all the incredible forms of life that call this planet home. For an outside observer with material needs attended to, nature is indeed beautiful. But beauty is not truth. What ignorance calls beauty is often brutality and horror. The birds are not singing, they are shrieking war cries. What seems to be a peaceful meadow is really a bloody battlefield. On every square inch of land and sea, organisms are fighting and killing. They try desperately to out compete each other for food and resources, and for a shot at reproduction. Most of them will fail, and die gruesome deaths from disease, starvation, parasites, and predators.

From the very bottom of the food chain to the top, suffering and death is the norm in nature. Look at the typical life of an animal. If it's parents manage to survive long enough to reproduce, it will be born. Depending on the species, it will most likely be eaten alive long before it reaches maturity. If it manages to avoid predators, its siblings may out compete it, or bully it to death. Or its parents may be killed, and it will starve. Throughout its life, it will be infected with parasites that sap its strength and cause it pain. Diseases will kill, or at the very least weaken it.

This is not a beautiful bird.

If an animal is not at the top of the food chain its life will most likely end by being eaten alive. Even if it miraculously survives until old age, eventually an injury or lack of food will leave it dying alone in agony, to be devoured by scavengers.

If an animal is at the top of the food chain, it's fate is hardly better. An apex predator can still be killed by rivals, or succumb to disease or injury. The predator that lives to old age will one day find itself unable to hunt. Its fate will be to starve to death over several weeks, if it's not eaten first.

The day to day battle for survival is brutal, and one that all but the most destitute humans have forgotten about. In the developed world, even the worst off among us are far from a state of nature. We have exterminated the large predators that would harm us, eradicated most diseases and parasites, and have built vast infrastructure to make our lives easier. Food is plentiful, and can be found everywhere. The difference between walking over a paved bridge, and trying to navigate a swamp is almost incalculable.

The Enemy Within

Humans often anthropomorphize the non-human, and nature is no exception. Nature is given the personification of a mother. Nature is seen to be caring, loving, and wholesome. But this view is just as ridiculous as believing Zeus makes thunder. At its base all that nature consists of is self replicating proteins that don't care about anything. These proteins aren't even alive. Like water flowing downhill they obey simple rules, and their only function is self replication. We living things, from bacteria to humans, are merely the emergent phenomena that are the result of that process. Self replicating proteins are us, but they don't care about us.

Much of the suffering we face comes from our own genetic faults and inherent biological weakness. Do you have a serious chronic illness or disability? In a state of nature you would probably be dead, and evolution would keep on humming. Natural selection is a brutal, cruel process. From a cold scientific perspective, its impressive, and even beautiful, but trust me. You really, really, don't want to be a part of it.

The only thing natural selection is concerned with is reproduction, so anything that facilitates that is "good". That's how you get wild pigs with tusks growing through their own skulls.

The Babirusa has tusks that grow up through its snout and out the top. If they get long enough they've been known to curl back and puncture its own skull. Yay evolution!

Chronic suffering of every kind, mental illness, disease, cancer, pain and parasites. These are all natural. They are the products of life and evolution. When we think of nature we think of pretty forests , and ignore all the terrible things that are natural. When you go camping you are not in nature. You are a foreign tourist, who gets to enjoy the fun, but never has to deal with the horrors of being a full time resident in nature.

Natural forces are impersonal and have no concern for perfection or human welfare. Many of the traits we have are good enough for reproduction, but cause pain and suffering as we age. Today, billions of humans are alive because we defied nature. Most people you know get to live long lives of relative comfort because we chose to say fuck you to nature. Many romantic activists insist that we should live in harmony with nature instead of trying to control it. Harmony with nature means the sick and the weak, the elderly and the injured, die and agonizing death like all other animals in nature.

Nature is Not Sacred

How do you feel about rocks? Rocks are cool, but they are obviously not alive. If there were rocks in the way of you trying to dig a well you would move them. No one would say you were evil for trying to stop a rock slide with engineering.

What about nature. You already know that all life is at its base is simple self replicating proteins that aren't alive either. You and I are a (happy?) accident. A coincidence. We arose from the emergent phenomena of impersonal systems and chance interacting over billions of years.

You can't desecrate nature, unless you worship nature. Believing in a personified nature, in a mother earth is a spiritual, not a scientific claim. Which is fine. But you can't turn around and try to use science to defend your position.

If you want to take the spiritual view of nature, think long and hard. Your deity would be cruel, a lover of suffering and pain. If you want to worship nature, you should not be reading this article, or enjoying any of the fruits of civilization. You should be living in the forest in a hunter gatherer tribe with only the most rudimentary tech. You should be happy to practice cannibalism, infanticide, murder, and rape. After all, that's how our natural ancestors lives, and how many uncontacted tribes still do.

Humanity is already far away from the nature that made us. We live in a world we made for ourselves. No one complains about indoor plumbing, electricity, medical care, food access, etc. These things aren't natural. To reject them means death and suffering for billions.

Pursuing a separation from nature also has consequences. Only the foolish would deny our impacts on the rest of the natural world. Perhaps these impacts are senseless and self destructive, as environmentalists argue. But to discuss impacts its essential we do so in a rational and objective way. Knowing what nature is, you cannot make moral arguments for it. Indeed protecting nature is a contradiction. Nature is not in any danger. We must protect ourselves from it. Individual species come and go, and this planet will be filled with death and suffering whether we are hear to observe it or not.

Building an industrialized civilization uses vast quantities of resources and energy. Industrialization means more humans get to exist, and there lives are infinitely better than if we were still living as hunter gatherers. But for this civilization to exist, much of nature must be sacrificed. There is always painful trade offs that we need to honestly look at. You can't have it all. Every acre of farmland that guarantees human food security means less habitat for wild animals.

Our prosperity means the decline and extinction of thousands of other species. To live within the confines of nature gives other life forms a chance, but destroys the hopes of a long term thriving civilization.

There is no crimes or sins against nature. Only trade-offs in of preferences and costs.

Completely Breaking Away From Nature is the Only Option.

One thing we can all agree on is that our current position is unsustainable. We are now sufficiently powerful to destroy ourselves, but not powerful enough to ensure our long term survival.

We can dig mines, but we can't mine asteroids.

We can colonize smaller nations, but not planets.

We can prolong death, but we can't cure it.

We have widespread nuclear weapons, but limited nuclear power.

You get the picture

Our current level of development ample opportunity for us to cause our own extinction, but doesn't take us where we need to go. Thinking that we can keep the status quo by buying organic and slapping a few solar panels on our roof is delusional. Although this is the mainstream argument, its just hiding our heads in the sand while waiting for our inevitable doom.

We basically have two options.

Option 1

Reject modernity, and return to a primitive way of life. Watch our civilization slide back to a more natural world as we exhaust natural resources, run out of energy, and squander resources with war. Or if you are a primitivist, you could voluntarily check out from the modern world, and try to force everyone along with you. Once there, sit around for a few million years until an asteroid wipes you out.

Option 2

Completely break with nature. All technological progress up until now has just been half measures. Its time to step on the gas and spread life throughout the galaxy. This means radical genetic manipulation of ourselves and our food. It means nuclear power and eventually nuclear fusion. Transhumanism and immortality. Space colonization, asteroid mining, and partial Dyson spheres. This is humanity becoming so powerful that we could essentially exist in one form or another until the end of the universe.

The choice is between a philosophy of acceptance and death, or a philosophy of change and hope.

I have tried to make the case that nature is an impersonal force, not an anthropomorphic deity. As such it has no interests that we need to consider when choosing our future. It's always been indifferent to our needs or desires, and actively harms us (and every other living thing) in too many ways to count. This really leaves anyone who wants a long term, prosperous future for our species with one choice.

Its time to leave the cradle, and leave nature behind. Sure we can still visit and enjoy it. We can view it like a loving gardener views his plants. We know whats going on and we can participate when we like, but we are not a part of it. We can become masters of our own destiny. I don't think there is anything else a self aware, intelligent species can do.